Skip to main content
Innovation, Return On Investment, Sales Training, VR

How VR Transformed Walmart’s Approach to Training

November 04, 2021 / by Ayreann Luedders

Ayreann Luedders

Senior Director II, Walmart U.S. Academies

Hear about Walmart’s journey to VR-based training, key learnings from their rollout of the tech to 4,700 locations, and their future plans with VR.


-Liz: Wow! Thank you! This has been just a tremendous afternoon. I hope everybody has found it as rich and fruitful as I have. And I think the message for the learning and development community and HR in general is that the future is now, that XR technologies are presenting really wonderful opportunities, solutions, and return on

-Liz: Wow! Thank you! This has been just a tremendous afternoon. I hope everybody has found it as rich and fruitful as I have. And I think the message for the learning and development community and HR in general is that the future is now, that XR technologies are presenting really wonderful opportunities, solutions, and return on investment. So, it’s been a really great afternoon, and now we have our keynote speaker, which I’m so excited about. And I can’t imagine that there’s anyone in our audience that has not walked into a Walmart recently, and many of you are probably familiar with Walmart Academies. It’s a dedicated location, usually in or near a Walmart Supercenter, where frontline hourly supervisors, department managers and assistant managers receive professional training. What may not be well known is that someone a lot smarter than me coined a really great term, a quiet virtual reality revolution that’s taking place at Walmart. So since 2017 the company has been using virtual reality headsets in the employee training centers to improve the employee experience, better assess worker skills and present new ways of training staff. So here to tell us a little bit more about this is Ayreann Luedders. Ayreann is currently Senior Director of Walmart’s US Academies. She and her team are responsible for the operation, communication and standards review for the 200 field-based training academies across the country. I’m so excited to hear from you, Ayreann, and really just very grateful to have you this afternoon and to have you as our keynote speaker, so welcome.

-Ayreann: Thank you, Liz. Definitely appreciate the opportunity to be here and the opportunity to share a little bit about Walmart’s journey into the VR effort stream. I think eventually — It’s like becoming a movement, and I think Walmart, from an industry standpoint, were some of the first ones to step into it pretty significantly. And I look forward — I’m going to just tell you the story of how we got there, what prompted us to invest into VR, and then some of the impacts that we have seen from it, and then what’s next on our journey. All right. So we’re going to go ahead and get started with some slides to share with you because I think visual — I’m a visual learner and being part of the academy program and developing learning for our adult learners, it became even more clear to me that I’m a visual learner. So I created some slides to take all of you through on our journey into VR. So, as Liz mentioned, we can’t talk about VR truly without talking about our academy program. As she mentioned, we have 200 academies across the United States. These academies are really focused on educating our learners within our stores. So we have our associates in the stores, and they get to come to our academies. Last couple years we have been really heavy into the virtual learning space because of COVID. And we recognize that there’s got to be other variations to add engagement within the classroom. So when we built our 200 academies, we brought in the Oculus Rift units, which are laptop units, and we built rooms specifically, and some of them for these VR units. The great thing about the Rift units at the time is you can display them on a screen, so you can have a classroom of people observing what the participant in the goggles is seeing, and then you can have a great dialogue around that experience. And what we noticed is when we were utilizing VR in certain classes for content, our assessment scores increased. So within the academy we have a pre-assessment and a post-assessment that occurs. And when there’s a particular class that we offer that involves the engagement of VR, we saw that assessment score increase, that post-assessment score increase. So we thought to ourselves, “Hey, there’s got to be another, more options on how we can bring VR to our over 1 million associates versus just the associates that come into the academy.” So how can we make this a broader reach to that audience. Well, great timing. Here entered our pickup towers, and this was in 2018, 2019 when this was happening. And our pickup towers are 30 foot towers that are placed into the stores, and the customers will buy their merchandise online, come into the store, and the pickup tower will dispense their merchandise once it has arrived. And what they were doing, the product team, when they were shipping out these pickup towers to be installed they were also sending a trainer. So a trainer would stay in that store for an entire week and train the associates. And then, as we all know, the trainer would leave and we have turnover, and as new associates would come in they would not get that training that that physical, on-site trainer was doing. So we felt this was a perfect case study to determine how well VR could be utilized in the field. So instead of shipping a trainer, we shipped two VR units along with the pickup tower with about three modules around how to utilize the pickup tower, how to troubleshoot it, how to use it for the customer, et cetera. And for the first time in a long time we actually had associates standing in line to take the learning through the VR. There was excitement around it. There was engagement around it. And we realized that this is a great model to continue to engage that adult learner. And so, obviously, it’s a great model to also sustain that training. So as new associates are hired into that store, they can go in the back, put on the headset and be able to watch those modules with regards to how to utilize the pickup tower. And doing it in a VR format, as you know, puts you into that environment and immerses you into that learning, so you really walk away with a higher level of knowledge gain from what we have seen. So enter the pickup tower. We did the case study. We recognized that there was some validity in incorporating VR holistically into all of our stores. So what we did next is we went to our capital committee, obviously, and we got approval to ship out four Oculus Go units to all of our stores. We have over 4,700 Walmart stores and neighborhood markets, and we got the opportunity to ship it to them and we created a variety of modules to help keep the associates engaged. Since that time we have had close to almost 800,000 associates view a variety of modules within our locations. So we’re continuing to see improvement in this area. We’re continuing to see growth. But let’s first talk about what are some of the operating principles that we use when we’re looking at what is good content to put in this VR space. So some of the key things we look at, we look at is it rare. To us that means these are really incidents that don’t happen often in the store, but it is something that the associates in the store need to be prepared for. For example, coming up with the holidays we have a holiday rush VR that shows them how to do you appropriately line up the customers as they’re trying to come through the checkouts. How do you deal with a challenging situation, and it puts you in that moment versus reading about it because reading about it’s not going to allow the opportunity for that emotion to come in when maybe something when maybe something is not going well. So we want to put you through that experience, help you understand that emotion and help you understand how to manage that appropriately, so you can be a better associates for our customers on the sales floor. And then we also look, is it new? Will it transport associates to a new experience that maybe we haven’t fully implemented in all our stores? So is it a change management program, something new that we are sending to our stores, and we need to give them some advance insights into it. The other operating principle that we look is, is it real? Is it something that you can observe in a business-as-usual scenario for participants, once again, to really think about how do they handle themselves in that situation before they are actually in that situation to give them the tools to be more successful. And then emotional. We want the participants to experience the emotions and the uncomfortableness of being in certain situations because then they’re more likely to remember how they felt, and then when they actually go through it in a real life experience they know how to reply. Similar to what Courtney was talking about earlier with the empathy training, and we have done empathy training for our cashiers as well. We also have an active shooter module, which deals with the University of Texas avoid, deny, defend, which has come — Unfortunately that learning has come into some significant success with associates viewing it, and then unfortunately having those incidents in their stores and they knew how to respond to it and trying to be proactive in those unfortunate scenarios and give them the tools that they need when they are faced with those opportunities. And difficult conversations, front-end transformation, holiday rush, the opioid overdose education. These are some of our top experiences that get the most views around that. And we have a lot more other experiences, but these truly are the most — I would say the most watched and the most common that we see within our workforce today. But let’s talk about what are some of the learnings and impacts that we have had with incorporating VR into our leaning strategy. A big one is seat time reduction, and this one continues to be important within our space, is how can we continue to minimize having our associates in the back room watching CBLs? So in this particular example, we had an 83 percent decrease in seat time reduction. We front from about a 25 minute hazardous waste CBL down to a 3 minute VR module. And that is significant, and that is a compliance module, so obviously we had to work with our legal partners and everyone to talk through how do we do this appropriately and make sure that the associates are still getting what they need to do when it comes to managing hazardous waste. We continue to see reductions. So not only is it seat time reduction. That seat time reduction just obviously leads to better customer service out on the sales floor because that’s truly where associates need to be. So that’s one thing that we have seen improve. Travel expense reduction. Obviously we had a huge reduction in travel expense with the pickup tower by removing that trainer and sending out the Oculus Go units. And then we’ve had a decrease in missed sales. We have an AP receipt check VR module, where the associates watch it to better understand, when do I need to be asking for a receipt for customers exiting the store, and we’ve had a 55 percent increase in missed sales by having those associates understand how to do that appropriately. And then, obviously, the knowledge retention gains that I spoke about earlier, we’re at about 10 percent increase in assessment scores when we see VR in that classroom. So a few things that are coming up next for us is we’re looking at piloting the Pico Neo 3, and this is in our supply chain. So we also have six supply chain academies right now, and that area, that side of our business is continuing to grow. And so within the Pico Neos we’re talking through how do you unload a truck. So you have the six degrees of freedom handsets, and you’re getting to truly visualize how do you appropriately unload a truck within our DCs, and there’s lots of other opportunities honestly with the Pico Neo. And then VR trade skills. So we’re just now doing some discovery work with a company who has trade skills, such as HVAC certification, et cetera, that utilizes VR. So we’re looking into that foray of our business. We’re getting ready to open a new academy in Chicago, and we want to make a part of that academy to be a community academy. So community members can come to that location and get skills, trade skills and certifications that they may not have easily had the access or ability to do before, and so we’re looking at how do we deliver that and new ways of learning as well. And then outside of VR, but really within that immersive space, is conversational learning. We are building a financial mentor using a market manager. We have interviewed that market manager for 5 days in the same outfit, asking questions to then create that AI experience for our associates to be able to simply go onto their handheld, pull up the financial mentor and ask questions that this long-term market manager, who has so much experience and investment, can share with our associates on how do you read that P&L differently, what are you looking for from an expense standpoint. So we’re just continuing to grow and learn in this space. There’s so much opportunity that I know has been mentioned before. It has been a game changer for us, and it continues to be a game changer for us. We’re constantly looking for new ways of engaging our associates, and VR has really helped to fill that gap for us, and now we’re looking more into the AI space as well as kind of our next steps to see how successful we can be in that venue. So I definitely encourage all of you HR leaders, take the opportunity to really figure out how to incorporate VR into your learnings. Obviously you don’t need to probably jump head first into it like we did, but do some learnings. Do some pilots. Test it out. See what works for you because there is so much opportunity. The opportunities are endless, as you have heard today. Don’t wait that 4 years, as you have your learning strategy built out before you think about bringing VR into your programs because it’s a great opportunity to engage such a wide variety of associates, and our feedback has been excessively positive. We have some instances — One thing to think about, like the compliance VR. We still have to do that in a CBL because some associates may feel a little dizzy, a little nauseous in VR. It’s rare for us, but being compliance we will offer them either delivery modality on how they wish to take it. But other learnings you can just focus on VR. We have the difficult conversations VR that offer. It’s an opportunity for you to sit down. You put the goggles on. You’re in a room, and so you have cameras that are recording your body language and recording verbally what you say, the audio as well. And then at the end of the difficult conversation it replays you, as well what you say, so then you can see yourself in a different light and have that discussion on how could I have handled that differently? What did I need to say differently? Was my eye contact appropriate? Was I showing the right amount of empathy? So that’s just one way that we utilize it to continue to help our leaders be successful in a safe environment. It gives them a safe environment to learn, so when they’re in the real-life situation they have the skills that they need to make it a pleasant and much more meaningful experience for everyone involved. But really, thank you for this opportunity. If there — I once again just encourage you to look at VR in your learning space. See if there’s anything else, how you can incorporate it into your learning to just grow and continue to be successful in helping all your employees and associates continue to be successful in their roles. So thank you, everyone. I appreciate the time.

-Laura: Thanks, Ayreann. Thank you so much for sharing about Walmart’s journey into VR.

Share this: